Bukowski, Charles

Bukowski, Charles
   At no time did Charles Bukowski consider himself a “Beat.” Even though he shared publications, readings, and the occasional social gathering with prominent Beat figures, he set himself apart from his literary contemporaries. As he told the editor of Paris Metro in 1978, “I’m not interested in this bohemian, Greenwich Village, Parisian bullshit. Algiers, Tangier, that’s all romantic claptrap.” Yet we can still find parallels between his work and that of jack kerouac and allen ginsberg in their use of autobiographical fiction as a tool for exposing and examining reality. They differ in that Bukowski’s view of reality can seem bleak and dark next to the optimistic Kerouac’s. While the Beats were communal and spiritual (often embracing Eastern religions and philosophies), Bukowski was solitary and, at times, aspiritual. While many Beats embraced illegal drug use, Bukowski denounced it, preferring alcohol. Yet the Beats seemed to be often on Bukowski’s mind in his writings. He was aware that they had achieved a literary fame that he felt he rightly deserved. Yet, in the end, Bukowski is arguably even more popular than some of his Beat peers.
   Born Heinrich Karl Bukowski on August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski’s parents later changed his name to Henry Bukowski when they moved to Los Angeles, California. Aside from a few jaunts out East, Los Angeles was where Bukowski lived most of his life and the place that became the setting for much of his work. His childhood was extremely unpleasant, ranging from violent beatings administered by his father to painful and ugly boils that developed on his face and left lifelong scars. These events served as material for his fourth book, Ham on Rye (1982), which chronicles his youth. Direct and vivid scenes describe trips to the hospital where young Bukowski endured needles injected into his boils to draw the pus from them. This scarring, along with his prominent nose and paunch belly, assembled to create a rather unattractive man. The awkward, self-conscious Bukowski found a blissful escape in alcohol that remained a constant companion to him for almost the rest of his life.
   John Martin began Black Sparrow Press to publish Bukowski in the 1960s, and Black Sparrow can be called the house that Bukowski built (the press also published many Beat authors). In the December 1976 issue of Hustler, Bukowski stated that 93 percent of what he wrote was autobiographical. Much of his poetry and short stories deal with the monotony of everyday life, excessive drinking, playing the horses, and sexually charged (although at times clumsy) encounters with women. Throughout the drudgery he imbues his stories with humor and sharp insights into human interactions. His first novel, Post Office (1971), tells the story of Henry Chinaski, who (like Bukowski) spent 12 years working for the post office. His prose style is like his poetry in that it is sparse and powerful, the humor cynical and smart. In Women (1978), Bukowski lightly fictionalizes his numerous love affairs, from young female fans who would send him pictures and fly out to meet him to his turbulent relationship with the sculptress Linda King (“Lydia”). After having lost his virginity late in life and only having sex sporadically until the age of 50, Bukowski took advantage of his small celebrity status and the opportunities it afforded him to meet women. These real-life romances (filled with heated drama more often than not) provided wonderful material for his work. To pay the bills, Bukowski wrote pornographic stories for adult magazines and provocative pieces for the independent paper Open City and later the LA Times. These stories were collected and published by Essex House as Notes of a Dirty Old Man, which was reissued by lawrence ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books. It contains Bukowski’s account of meeting neal cassady and the classic hair-raising car ride with Cassady behind the wheel just a few weeks before Cassady died in Mexico. Notes of a Dirty Old Man was not the only collection of short stories to be published by City Lights. In 1972 they published erections, ejaculations and General tales of ordinary madness. Being a large book, it was later reissued in 1983 as two shorter collections, Tales of Ordinary Madness and The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. In addition to his connection to City Lights, Bukowski’s poems appear alongside two Beat authors, harold norse and Philip Lamantia in Penguin Modern Poets13 (1969). It was at Harold Norse’s request that Bukowski be included in the anthology. The two of them developed a friendship. Other Beat encounters include a benefit poetry reading where he appeared with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and gary snyder. That evening, as he had done many times in the past, Bukowski drank himself into a belligerent state and insulted Ginsberg, claiming that he had not written anything “worth a shit” after “howl” and “kaddish.” It was typical drunken Bukowski behavior as insecurity and too much booze combined as a catalyst for lashing out at others. He became notorious for insulting the audience at his poetry readings. Of course, his reputation of volatility enticed fans as they waited in long lines to see the “drunk Bukowski show.”
   The climax of his popularity came when the film Barfly was released. Bukowski wrote that the screenplay that was based on his life and work. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, and starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, Barfly was only a moderate success, but it remains what mainstream America knows best about Bukowski. The making of the film served as material for Bukowski’s fifth novel, Hollywood (1989). This book takes a funny, critical look at the entertainment industry from the blue collar, outsider- turned-insider perspective. Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994, after a prolonged battle with cancer. Bukowski biographer Howard Sounes wrote of his body of work, “there is an uncompromising personal philosophy running through: a rejection of drudgery and imposed rules, of mendacity and pretentiousness; an acceptance that human lives are often wretched and that people are frequently cruel to one another, but that life can also be beautiful, sexy, and funny.” Factotum, a movie based on Bukowski’s novel, directed by Brent Hamer and starring Matt Dillon, was released in 2005.
■ Brewer, Gay. Charles Bukowski. New York: Twayne, 1997. Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank. New York: Random House, 1991.
■ Duval, Jean-Francois. Bukowski and the Beats. Northville, Mich.: Sun Dog Press, 2002.
■ Harrison, Russell. Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1994.
■ Sounes, Howard. Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
   Julie Lewis

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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